A couple years ago, while perusing the News Notes in The Natural Farmer (Winter, 2018-19) issue, I was stunned by a reference to “Harvard’s billion-dollar farmland fiasco.” The Natural Farmer is the newspaper of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.
Published quarterly as a newsprint tabloid journal, The Natural Farmer covers news of the organic movement nationally and internationally, as well as featuring stories about farmers from New England, New York and New Jersey. Some issues have included a 16 to 24 page pull out supplement on a particular crop or topic. The paper also contains how-to-do-it articles suitable for gardeners and homesteaders.
The News Note about Harvard University’s endowment fund spending “around $1 billion to acquire control of an estimated 850,000 hectares (2,303,925 acres) of farmland around the world, making the University one of the world’s largest and most geographically diverse farmland investors” was shocking. It also stated that “Other U.S. Universities, including the University of Texas, Princeton, Stanford and Yale, have invested over a billion dollars in ‘natural resources’ and farmland.” “Grain.org, Sept. 6, 2018” was referenced as the “source” for this information.
GRAIN is “a small international non-profit organization that works to support small farms and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems.” An article by GRAIN and Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos on GRAIN’s website dated September 6, 2018 is also titled, “Harvard’s billion-dollar farmland fiasco.” Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos is a Brazilian non-profit organization based in São Paulo.
Included in the article on GRAIN’s website is a Table listing the “Top U.S. University endowment funds investing in farmland” and their current allocation to natural resources assets in “$millions” and the “farmland locations.”
With time, this news faded in my aging brain. But the more recent and positive news reported in the New York Times, “Harvard Says It Will Stop Investments In Fossil Fuels” (9/11/21) by Anemona Hartocollis, brought back to mind, the troublesome issue of Harvard’s speculating in farmland. Reporter Hartocollis cited an email sent by Harvard’s president, Lawrence S. Bacow to the Harvard community stating that “climate change is the most consequential threat facing humanity.” It’s well known that regenerative organic agriculture has the ability to sequester carbon in the soil and release 40% fewer carbon emissions than conventional farming systems. Speculating for profit in the ownership of farmland is simply counterproductive in the quest to switch to an agricultural system that is not harmful to the climate as noted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Reporter Hartocollis wrote further that Bacow’s announcement “is a major victory for the climate change movement, given Harvard’s $42 billion endowment and prestigious reputation, and a striking change in tone for the school, which has resisted putting its full weight behind such a declaration during years of lobbying by student, faculty and alumni activists.” President Bacow noted that the Harvard Management Company (HMC), which manages Harvard University’s endowment and related financial assets, has “no direct investments in companies that explore for or develop further reserves of fossil fuels . . . and does not intend to make such investments in the future (emphasis added).”
But has Harvard truly stopped investments of its endowment (which as of the fiscal year ending June 30, 2021 is $53.2 billion) in fossil fuels? And is it still speculating in natural resources including farmland?
The news back in the fall of 2018 about Harvard University’s farmland holdings was also reported in an article in The Harvard Crimson, “Harvard’s Farmland Holdings Come Under Fire In New Report” (9/11/18) by Eli W. Burnes and Andrew J. Zucker. These Crimson staff writers noted that “It can be difficult to monitor Harvard’s natural resource investments because HMC (Harvard Management Corporation) uses subsidiaries to invest in farming operations, which can obscure the University’s involvement.”
Similarly, a more recent news article on Harvard Magazine’s website, Harvard Endowment Increases $11.3 Billion to $53.2 Billion, and University Operations Yield $283-Million Surplus Despite Pandemic by John S. Rosenberg (10/14/21), includes a chart showing Endowment Performance, Fiscal Year 2021, that lists eight “asset classes” with the percentage of “allocation” and “investment return.” 34% of Harvard’s endowment was allocated to “Private Equity” with a stunning investment return of 77%.
With regard to disinvestment from fossil fuel assets, does Harvard know if endowment funds allocated to “private equity” support or involve fossil fuel assets given the veil of corporate secrecy that governs private equity? With regard to the small allocation of 1% to “Natural Resources,” 1% of $53.2 billion is nonetheless a half billion dollars. How much of that half billion is a speculative investment in farmland?
A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor by Erika Page, “Economics 101: More college classes bring moral debates to the surface,” (12/6/21), asks this important question: how can economics truly embrace sustainability when the basic models assume more is always better? Focusing single-mindedly on investment returns, while the world overheats is not the right choice. The National and Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of late noted that “Based on preliminary analysis, the global average atmospheric carbon dioxide in 2020 was 412.5 parts per million (ppm for short), setting a new record high amount despite the economic slowdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” Not that long ago, the focus was to limit carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million, the goal of the international movement 350.0rg.
Yes, it is good news that Harvard’s President Bakow has shown a “striking change in tone” with regard to stopping investments in fossil fuels, and it’s good news that there are members of the Harvard community like Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard asking for Harvard to “publicly disclose all current direct and indirect investments in the fossil fuel industry in an annual document (emphasis added).”
And given our website’s mission, we would also ask that Harvard publicly disclose all current direct and indirect investments in farmland. Owning a farm or farmland is not like trading stock on the Dow Jones. It comes with responsibility to the land’s fertility and health, the biodiversity of the natural world and the well-being of future generations of human and animal inhabitants.
(Frank W. Barrie, 4/21/22)